Waiting for the Barbarians – J.M. Coetzee

“Time for the black flower of civilization to bloom.”

I don’t know how to review fiction, so instead I’m just going to let Coetzee speak for himself. I’ll give a bit of background, but there are so many quotes with wisdom I think I’ll just share those.

Waiting for the Barbarians is the story of the Magistrate, a man who has “not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times.” He administers a small town on the border between Empire and the barbarian lands. As the novel progresses, Empire becomes concerned over the possibility of war with the barbarians: interrogators come and go, prisoners are taken, and the army moves in. It captures a clash of worlds, Empire and barbarians, humanity and brutality, complexity and simplicity.

As the magistrate witnesses some of the horrors of Empire, he periodically reflects on them:

“I know somewhat too much; and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to be no recovering… The knot loops in upon itself; I cannot find the end.”

On new beginnings;

“It would cost little to march them out into the desert (having put a meal in them first, perhaps, to make the march possible), to have them dig, with their last strength, a pit large enough for all of them to lie in (or even to dig it for them!), and, leaving them buried there forever and forever, to come back to the walled town full of new intentions, new resolutions. But that will not be my way. The new men of Empire are the ones who believe in fresh starts, new chapters, clean pages; I struggle on with the old story, hoping that before it is finished it will reveal to me why it was that I thought it worth the trouble.”

On time;

“What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history.”

On certainty;

“In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable. No one truly believes, despite the hysteria in the streets, that the world of tranquil certainties we were born into is about to be extinguished.”

I’m not sure a selection of quotes do him justice, but Coetzee is very much one of the wise, and there is definitely wisdom to be gleaned here.

There’s also some wisdom to be found in the Subtle Illumination email list to your right, however. Or, keep reading Coetzee (or in the UK or Canada).

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